OTTAWA — Four years ago, Liberals in Canada walked away from the campaign hustings with great despair.
With just 34 MPs elected, for the first time since Confederation the Liberals were neither government nor official Opposition, and many wondered if the party would ever recover.
"In 2011, I had people saying to me, 'What political party will you be involved in now?' " says Greg MacEachern, former director of communications to the late Manitoba Liberal cabinet minister Reg Alcock and now a government strategist with Environics Communications in Ottawa.
It took two years of life on the outskirts before Justin Trudeau, the eldest son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, beat Conservative Sen. Patrick Brazeau in a charity boxing match, revived his leadership aspirations and trounced the field of leadership candidates with 80 per cent of the vote.
It looked like the Liberals had their saving grace.
The Liberals soared in the polls and stayed in the lead for nearly two years.
Conservative attack ads pegging Trudeau as not ready to lead were relentless but seemed to have little result.
There wasn't a lot in the way of policy, but Canadians warmed to Trudeau and Liberals were practically giddy.
But that Liberal lead dwindled and, in May, the NDP began an ascent that now has that party on top and the Liberals down in third place.
MacEachern says nobody can truly say what they think will happen because this is a situation unlike any the Liberals have faced.
"There's nothing you can point to federally like this," said MacEachern.
The Liberals have changed up their strategy to a large extent. Gone are references to the red door and the blue door amid coalition talk that had former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff labelled as arrogant and out of touch in 2011.
Gone, too, is the inherent belief the Liberals are Canada's natural governing party. It is replaced with a certain level of nervousness — behind the scenes Liberal stalwarts are looking at the poll numbers and their stomachs are queasy.
There now is policy. Lots of it. A plan to introduce an income-based benefit for families with kids, pledges on the environment and a major overhaul of our democratic process that would make this election the last one to use the first-past-the-post system and put an end to partisan government advertising.
Trudeau's Achilles heel — both from other Liberals and his political opponents — has been accusations he is a lightweight, more style than substance. He now has to prove in a little over 70 days there is substance and intelligence beneath the boyish good looks.
Trudeau is trying to style himself as a positive choice, a sunny, upbeat and friendly face fighting a scandal-plagued, untrustworthy government that wants to focus more on him than it does on Canada.
Getting into government from third place is no easy feat. With just 36 seats when Parliament was dissolved Sunday, the Liberals have to win more than 130 new seats to get to majority status.
Privately, sources tell the Free Press there are about 100 additional seats being heavily targeted and a minority win is a more likely best-case scenario. That includes three seats in Winnipeg without a Conservative incumbent (Saint Boniface-Saint Vital, Winnipeg South and Kildonan St. Paul), Winnipeg South Centre, which the Liberals lost narrowly in 2011, and Winnipeg Centre where Robert-Falcon Ouellette is bringing a bit of star power and the NDP may suffer thanks to the highly unpopular provincial NDP government.
Kevin Lamoureux is considered generally safe in Winnipeg North. Although the NDP came within 50 votes of winning in 2011, the NDP privately told the Free Press Lamoureux is too hard to beat when the Liberal numbers are up and the NDP is fighting the drag of the Selinger government.
That's not to say there won't be an effort made in other ridings, such as Churchill. But MacEachern says the Liberals "are very sure where their strengths are," and that's where you will see Trudeau spend a lot of time.
While many Liberals still scratch their heads and wonder how their two-year-long lead suddenly disappeared in the last few months, MacEachern says the Liberals know one thing is certain.
"Even if your polling numbers aren't great, you know Canadians were prepared to go to you just six months ago," he said. "You know to those people, you are still a possibility."